In what is seen as a draconian measure to stop leaks in the social media that embarrass the government, which is already rattled by a corruption scandal, Turkey's embattled prime minister said he may shut down social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube after the local elections to be held March 30.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's remarks came during a televised interview on Thursday night. With the prime minister's statement, which came as a shock for most social media users, Turkey is seemingly headed to become one of those countries such as China, Iran and North Korea where social media is strictly controlled by the state.
Erdoğan described Facebook and YouTube, which he maintained to have been abused by his political opponents, as a threat to the nation at a joint broadcast of A Haber and ATV news channels. Talking about the recently passed amendments to the Internet law, widely criticized at home and abroad for censorship, Erdoğan made it clear that he did not find the restrictions on freedoms and the violation of privacy introduced by the Internet law sufficient. The prime minister said: “[…] There are other steps we will take following March 30.”
Underlining that the government would not “leave this nation at the mercy of YouTube and Facebook,” Erdoğan added: “Believe me, some friends and I are determined on this issue. Whatever needs to be done, we will take those steps in a most solid way.”
In answer to a question as to whether banning was included in the measures the government is planning to take, he replied, “Included.”
The threat to introduce a ban on social media is yet another manifestation of authoritarianism on the part of Erdoğan, who seems to have been highly vexed by recently leaked voice recordings revealing alleged corruption in the government. As part of a sweeping graft probe made public on Dec. 17 of last year, four Cabinet ministers had to leave their posts.
Voice recordings leaked onto the Internet have put Erdoğan in a tight corner since -- if the voice recordings are correct -- they revealed that the prime minister and some members of his family including his son, Bilal, are also involved in corruption.
In a recently leaked voice recording allegedly featuring Erdoğan and Bilal, the prime minister is heard instructing his son, on the morning of the day the graft probe became public, to dispose of vast amounts of cash, estimated to be as much as $1 billion, at the family's home.
Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications Minister Lütfü Elvan gave support, on Friday, to remarks by Erdoğan about social media outlets. “When a prime minister and president of a country are being heavily insulted, some illegal videos are being leaked [onto social media], we cannot be expected to remain unresponsive. This is not possible,” Elvan said. “Whatever is a crime in real life is also such when [committed] in the virtual environment.”
A somewhat reassuring statement on the issue came from President Abdullah Gül on Friday, who assured that there would be no regression on freedoms. In answer to a question about Erdoğan's comments, he ruled out a ban on social media, saying, “YouTube and Facebook are global platforms. The banning of them is out of the question.”
But Gül also noted that should a crime, an attack against privacy be carried out over social media, then these [social media outlets] can be shut down by a court's verdict. Gül, almost in the same words, repeated Elvan's reasoning that whatever is considered as a crime in the real world should also be considered as such in the virtual environment.
According to Erdoğan, the banning of Facebook and YouTube is on the government's agenda, because those who attack over the Internet are doing so immorally. “Because it [social media] is something with no restrictions. There can be no such understanding of freedoms,” the prime minister said.
Opposition parties have lashed out at Erdoğan for his threat to ban social media. “We will not allow the AKP [another abbreviation used by opposition for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party)] to do away with social media,” Erdoğan Toprak, deputy head of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), said in a written statement on Friday. “Such a ban would choke the society,” Toprak warned.
Noting that those who opposed the entry into Ottoman territory of the printing machine several centuries ago paved the way for the collapse of the empire, Toprak added: “Now, the prime minister of this country wants to shut down the social media, which is one of the main means of communication of this age. This is a big attack on the modern age, science, human rights and freedoms, the right to get information and communicate.”
The leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, in a speech in Kütahya on Friday, saw the prime minister's move to ban social media as efforts to block evidence about alleged corruption in the government being leaked onto the Internet. Noting that Erdoğan never complained about social media in past years when it was used to favor the prime minister himself, Bahçeli said, “Is it because there is now a series of videos on the Facebook about you and your son [Bilal] that you are saying this?”
Such a step, analysts have stressed, would come to mean putting democracy aside while pushing Turkey away from integration with the world. “Introducing a total ban would stand for giving up democracy and giving up Turkey's EU ambitions,” Mustafa Akgül, head of the İstanbul-based Internet Technologies Associations, told Today's Zaman.
Erdoğan raised the issue at a time when the government introduced a number of legislations curbing Internet freedom, press freedom and subordinating the judiciary to the government through restructuring the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK), the top legal body that regulates judicial affairs, including launching disciplinary inquiries to top judges and the appointment of prosecutors and judges.
The leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, has also maintained that the prime minister's remarks are caused by his fear about leaking evidence about corruption. During a rally in Diyarbakır on Friday, Demirtaş said, “He is saying, ‘We may shut down [YouTube, Facebook]' to block dirty relations that are leaked onto the Internet.”
Apparently in an effort to block the graft probe, those prosecutors and high-level police officers who were conducting graft probes were removed from their posts by the government following the graft probe. Thousands of police officers, including high-level ones, and dozens of prosecutors were removed as part of the government's move.
According to an audio clip played by CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu in Parliament last month, some business people were allegedly forced to contribute, $100 million per person, to a pool so that a media outlet could be bought by a businessperson close to the government. In return, the businesspeople were awarded huge public contracts, the CHP leader said.
Several audio clips leaked following the graft probe revealed -- if the voice recording is genuine -- that the prime minister often interfered in the media, instructing top media officials what to publish or broadcast. In an audio clip leaked over the Internet on Thursday, Erdoğan is heard criticizing in a threatening manner the owner of the Milliyet daily, Erdoğan Demirören, for a story run by the newspaper about the minutes of a meeting between pro-Kurdish BDP deputies and the imprisoned leader of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, in March last year.
The Milliyet owner is heard offering his apology for the news piece, which, according to Erdoğan, is detrimental to the critical talks with the PKK as part of the settlement process, and assures the prime minister that he would do what is necessary -- to fire the editor-in-chief and the reporter.
For Doğan Akın, editor-in-chief of T24 news portal, the prime minister is acting as if he is the judiciary. Noting that the prime minister cannot have the authority to ban social media outlets, Akın told Today's Zaman: “If the prime minister is to ban social media, then such a country would stop being a country where the rule of law reigns.”
The prime minister's authoritarian discourse and “enmity” towards social media have increased since the Gezi Park protests during which he called Twitter a “nuisance.” Environmental protests that rocked the country at the beginning of last summer turned into anti-government protests that went on nearly for a month. Protesters widely used social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook to communicate during the protests.